The Big Problem Behind Unpaid Interpreters: Why anime fans should value their skills

By: Amelia Cook June 15, 201716 Comments

This week Anime Expo, the biggest anime convention in the English speaking world, put a call out for volunteer interpreters. Anime Expo is far from a new event, and had over 100,000 attendees last year. How did they fail to account for the cost of professional interpreters when budgeting? If they can’t afford to pay interpreters, what hope do any of the smaller cons have?

Let’s be real: they didn’t fail to account for it, and they can afford it. AX is a big enough event in the fandom calendar that they could have bumped ticket prices up by under a dollar each to bring in the necessary funds. If for some reason that wasn’t an option, they’re a big enough name that they could even have crowdfunded it. There’s no good reason not to pay every single interpreter for their work. There are, however, a couple of bad ones.

The most generous reading of their actions is that not a single person on the entire AX staff understands what interpreting involves. More likely  is that they considered it an unnecessary cost, knowing they could get enthusiastic amateurs to work for free without putting a value on their time. Ours is a culture of scanlators and fansubbers working for the love of it, right? Why not give these lucky worker bees a chance to meet some cool people and see behind the scenes of a big event?

Translation and Interpreting are Different Skills

While translation and interpreting rely on the same knowledge base of the Japanese language, understanding what words mean is just one part of each job. Translation involves many more research skills, looking up obscure terms, phrases or cultural references and evaluating how best to adapt them for an audience without the cultural context. It’s more important for you to have strong command of the English language than of Japanese, especially in an age when you can identify words in seconds with search engines, online dictionaries and apps. The skill of the translator is not so much in understanding basic meaning, but in selecting exactly the right English word to convey the nuance, tone and voice of the original author.

Contrast to interpreting, where you would probably rather have a broader Japanese vocabulary in order to communicate on the speaker’s behalf as quickly and responsibly as possible. Interpreting happens for live events, which means listeners will usually have access to the original speaker’s tone of voice and body language. As such, the interpreter’s job is to communicate the content of the speaker’s words in a manner that is in line with their intentions, quickly enough that their conversation with someone else can flow as smoothly as possible. It involves intense focus, fast reflexes and good social awareness in both languages.

Each discipline is difficult in a different way. Both require professional respect and decent compensation at any level. Fluency in Japanese is not in itself enough to qualify you as an interpreter. And AX, despite asking for “fluent Japanese speakers”, revealed in a later tweet that they considered JLPT N2 level sufficient.

“Fluent” =/= “Fluent enough to interpret

‘Fluency’ is of course a nebulous concept, but there’s a bit of a leap between N2 level and the kind of fluency you need for professional interpreting. Taking myself as an example, I was above N2 standard when I lived in Japan. I translated contemporary and/or classical Japanese for most weeks of my specialised four-year degree. I spent a year working as live-in help for a Japanese family and many more years communicating bilingually with Japanese housemates. I’ve even given bilingual speeches at Japanese social and academic events… but there’s no way I could have worked as an interpreter at any point in my life.

When I’ve had to interpret for friends in social situations, I’ve generally found it draining, and eventually find myself translating only the bare minimum possible to enable them to follow conversations. And I’m a native English speaker, which is something the AX staff has also stated is not a requirement. I would trust a professional interpreter who is native in neither language, but an amateur is probably not up to the task. (If they actually are, fantastic! But if they’re doing a skilled job to a professional standard, they deserve to be paid.)

When you attend an event as enormous and established as Anime Expo, you should feel comfortable that you’re at least being communicated with properly. The worst-case scenario is that the guest is badly misrepresented through an inaccurate or misleading translation, or that they feel disrespected or disdainful of the con by the time they leave and decide not to return. These are outcomes worth paying to avoid.

Exploitation is a Natural Part of Capitalism

AX is far from the first anime or manga-related organisation to be accused of exploiting its workers – it’s just being unusually shameless about it. Every now and again, tweets circulate about various companies in this space treating their workers poorly in some way. A general lack of transparency around such companies makes it hard to work out which reports represent a genuine problem and which would seem perfectly reasonable in context – but this same lack of transparency makes it very easy to believe the former.

To be clear, I have no idea what anyone at any anime or manga company is paid. I’m just cynical enough to believe that it’s in most companies’ interests to pay workers a little as they can get away with before they risk increasing employee churn. We live in a time when people will jump at the chance to take unpaid internships in prestigious companies for the name recognition alone. In anime fandom, where the supply of people passionate enough to make their hobby into their job far outweighs demand, it’s absolutely plausible that those who land this work choose to quietly accept unfavourable working conditions and/or low pay. (See also: animators in Japan.)

However, this is just what profit-focused companies do. As soon as a company gets big enough, its obligations are to its shareholders. If serving employees and customers will help them meet shareholders’ expectations, then they will serve employees and customers. If it does not, they generally will not. No matter how close you feel to a company through its branding or customer-facing individuals, elsewhere are people whose job it is to make the numbers work for the shareholders, by any means necessary. We would all benefit from expecting less of the for-profit organisations in our space – and more of the non-profit organisations.

From a Culture of Entitlement to a Culture of Support

When I first saw the tweet from AX, it made me viscerally angry. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, to the point that I’ve written this post. What possible justification is there for this decision? What on earth made them think it would be acceptable? Were interpreters even discussed at the budgeting stage (and if not, why not)? Will they get their stable of unpaid amateur interpreters anyway, or will the outcry their tweet sparked make capable people steer clear? If they don’t get enough sufficiently capable volunteers, will they fork out for professionals or settle for people with a lower level of Japanese? What are their priorities in this situation? What were their priorities when they drew up this year’s budget?

Earlier I mentioned that we are a culture of scanlators and fansubbers. To rephrase, we have a culture of expectation that we will create skilled work for free, and entitlement to consume the outcome of someone’s skilled work for free, rooted in a time when we had no easy way to pay creators of any kind. But that is changing, as Crunchyroll’s subscription numbers and the successful crowdfunding of fans and their projects indicate. One of the most common questions fans ask of Amazon’s Anime Strike is about how much profit makes it back to Japan. People are more determined to financially support creators than they have been for years. The culture of entitlement is slowly transforming into a culture of valuing content and supporting creators – and all of us can and should help to make that happen.

Taking Action as Creators

I structured Anime Feminist around the basic idea that everyone would receive a fair wage for their work as soon as possible. It’s taking time, but with each new milestone someone else gets paid; at $800 it was contributing writers, at $900 it was our audio editor, at $1140 it will be our text editors, a.k.a. “Those People Who Have Consistently Kept AniFem From Crashing and Burning”. Once we have enough funding that everyone gets paid the sums we agreed are ‘fair’, we will start increasing pay to reflect our increased income. This is the difference between paying fairly (as much as you can reasonably justify) and competitively (as little as you can reasonably justify). Larger anime and manga companies will generally do the latter, because their shareholders require them to. From my perspective, smaller companies and non-profit organisations can and should do the former.

If you have no income at all, then of course you can’t pay anyone anything, but if you’re treating your content creation like a job and putting up new work regularly, then why would you not try to monetise it? It’s not noble or virtuous to work for love instead of money; better to get paid and enable yourself to do even more of that work without distraction or stress. Even if not a single person sends a dollar your way, it’s still a public statement that you place a value on your time and effort and that it is appropriate for other people to do the same.

Taking Action as Consumers

It goes without saying that we also have an obligation to pay where possible for the creations we enjoy. If everyone who reads AniFem and can afford it gave us $1 a month, we’d be able to pay people at double or triple the rates we’re offering now, and have enough left over to afford to do some of the projects we’re internally very excited about but simply can’t justify yet. That said, I know I don’t yet financially support all the fans creating work I consume regularly. I need to make a conscious effort to shape our fandom culture – not just through AniFem, but as an individual making decisions on how to spend my money.

Here’s my contribution: on payday this month I’ll set up a $1 patronage to a creator whose work I enjoy, and add a new creator for another $1 every month until I hit my affordability ceiling. (Patreon tip: every single dollar is deeply appreciated, and the predictability of recurring income is more valuable to us than one-off larger payments. Signing up to be a $1 patron is more valuable to any creator than you may realise!) I will of course be looking for marginalised creators to support – if you have recommendations for creators I should give my dollar too, put those in a comment!

Promoting creators along with links to their Patreon is one way to contribute to this culture change, even if you aren’t in a position to contribute financially yourself. The more people set the expectation that skilled work should receive fair pay, the more our culture of entitlement will shift to one of support – and the less likely you are to have organisations as big as Anime Expo assuming they can round up skilled, knowledgeable workers to work full time on multiple days for free. If you think that’s a fannish future worth working towards, I’d love to hear from you in comments on what you and other fans can do to help make it happen.

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